Ellie's day-old Valentine rose was wilting fast in the thirty-five degree heat as we squeezed along the outside of a couple of trucks and made a break for Laos and avoided the Thai guardians of the Friendship Bridge II between Thailand and Laos who don't let pedal pushers cycle over the bridge. After a day on the banks of the Mekong in Savannakhet we rode down Route 13 until the provincial border between Savannakhet and Salavan. While the smooth tarmac of the main highway continued on south we contemplated the dusty gravel road that we were about to detour on to Toumlan and Salavan town over a bowl of noodles. Over the next couple of days we negotiated the 150 km dirt track to Salavan, through an area that is home to the Katang ethnic group. While I began to think that we had taken the wrong road, we eventually reached the villages where I had been in 2003 on the afternoon of the second day. The intervening period has been one of fast change in this part of rural Laos and along with the upgraded road that now saw a steady stream of traffic, from motorbikes and minivans to hand tractors and a lot less buffalo carts, there was also electricity, mobile phones, a small clinic, a secondary school and new wells. Where the Concern house and office had stood alone in a small clearing in the jungle, was now the centre of the bustling little village and several shops and many houses had been built surrounding it. Extensive logging has left less shade and undoubtedly had a big impact on the ability of the forest to provide. Instead of all-wooden houses whose planks were procured from the same valley, there was increasing use of imported building materials. As people shift towards a culture of consumption there will be an increasing need for cash to fuel the motorbikes and power the TVs. Yet no doubt there are more positive changes and with the provision of more accessible health care, hopefully there has been a decline in the infant mortality rate which very high when we surveyed the households nine years ago. Yet whatever the socio-economic arguments, my own feelings when we rode on towards Toumlan was one primarily of a sense of loss - a loss of knowledge from a culture that for centuries has evolved with the environment around it and gradually learned how to survive, to live together, to help each other and sometimes managing to achieve all this.
Juicing sugar cane
The building on the left is the former Concern office and staff house
Crossing the Mekong at Champasak
Don Det island
After a brief visit to the Four Thousand islands, we crossed into Cambodia last week after getting fleeced by venal immigration officers on both sides of the border who refused to stamp us through without some compensation for their hardwork. As most travellers seemed to be happily handing over the few dollars that were extracted from each passerby, objection and argument didn't make good progress. At the next window I could hear two Russian men arguing in English that they would end up paying more in bribes than the visa cost in the first place. So for a few moments I was happy to have left Laos and sorry to have arrived in Cambodia but then the anger abated and we rode down to Stung Treng. People continue to be very friendly as we pass by and children run to the roadside to yell hellos and bye-byes.
Crossing the Mekong again in Cambodia, from Stung Treng to Thala Boravit
Danger - mines
Homestay in Chheb village
Route 214 to Tbeng Meanchey
We had decided to try and follow a trail across to Tbeng Meanchey after taking a ferry across the Mekong and then on the newly paved road to Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor. Change is coming fast to this remote corner of Cambodia which had been isolated for many years due to the presence of former Khmer Rouge guerrillas but now roads are being built and paved and settlers moving in to clear the still heavily mined landscape of trees and establish farms. Because of the threat of landmines, wild camping was approached with a little more caution and most nights we either lodged in a US$5 guesthouse or stayed with a family. A couple of days ago we arrived into Siem Reap, the base for exploring the nearby Angkor ruins and we also met Maarten and Line, a cycling Dutch couple whom we had first met in China, then Hanoi at Christmas and again here, all by chance.
Yesterday myself and Ellie spent the day cycling around the temples, where despite the throngs of visitors in comparison to the remote Angkor-era ruins at Kor Ker and Beng Mealea that we had visited earlier in the week, were still fascinating to contemplate. Cambodia's gruesome recent history is as powerful as its ancient, and the country is still recovering from the impact of wars and the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970s. Recently the country's economy has been growing strongly but the front page of the Phnom Penh Post tells a story of the difficulties being experienced and covers recent protests by garment workers. The workers, who are making shoes for Puma, are looking for an increase on their meagre monthly wages of US$61 but their protest resulted in the town's governor shooting into the unarmed crowd. Last night on our way back from a day at the temples, we stopped by a small bar to sample some local draught beer and got chatting to one of the workers, who told us that us that he gets 50 cent an hour to work as a server at the bar-restaurant and on top of the eleven hour shift he puts in at the bar, he also cleans offices in the morning and grows vegetables to sell at the market. He usually sleeps from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. So while we're able to enjoy fantastic food here in Siem Reap at very cheap prices, for many Cambodian's its a struggle to make ends meet.
P.S. I'm still a happy camper despite the negative comments and trying not to get too grumpy in my old age.
Kor Ker ruins
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Pedalled: 57,802 km